The subject of Ramadhan and UK school exams has been brewing for a few years now in anticipation of this year’s cohort in May/June 2016, and for the next 5-6 years where the Holy Month of Fasting will occur at the same time as exams and/or revision for those exams.
In January this year, the issue made the headlines as it was announced that UK exam authorities had factored in Ramadan 2016 as much as possible and had attempted to bring forward the main exams with most students to before Ramadhan starting (i.e. before June 6th 2016) in order to minimise any adverse effects that fasting might have on students sitting exams. The usual suspects in the media tried to sensationalise the story as is their wont into the #creepingsharia event of 2016. Rumours that Katie Hopkins would try to swim across the Atlantic Ocean unassisted if such an exam schedule were to go ahead, proved sadly untrue especially as the exam schedule did indeed try to be as fair as possible to all students. However, the authorities were forced by the media to get defensive and fall into PR mode, denying that any major changes had been executed. But deep down, we know they tried to help us out *wink wink*.
What is of far greater concern has been the press release of a guidance paper for schools, parents and students by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) advising students on matters concerning Ramadhan this year. In it, they consulted a number of British Muslims of different backgrounds who shared various opinions on the matter, some which have been represented and some not in the final draft.
You can read the entire paper here.
As to be expected, there is some useful general background information on Islam and Ramadhan and its spiritual benefits blah blah, and there are even some useful life-saving tips where they advise to give a sip of water to someone who is fasting and is about to faint or die even. On a more serious point, there are good tips on how to help students revise, as well as promoting the allocation of areas for rest and the like during the fasting hours in school, with particular emphasis and rightly so for those girls who might be menstruating. We should thank the ASCL for their concern and help in these matters, we genuinely should.
But there is little doubt about the paper’s real direction. The ASCL is obviously very concerned that fasting in Ramadhan and other acts will lead to poor exam results and thus wishes for young Muslims to try and find a way out of their predicament – frankly the ASCL does a poor job hiding its fears despite its repeated disclaimers that it “cannot be prescriptive” even though they are bursting at the seams to, and that the paper is simple a “positive opportunity for engagement” etc etc when actually…wait, perhaps they got that part right because people are certainly contacting me in their droves requesting me to engage!
I personally, as well as most orthodox Muslim scholars and the laity will find the following statements from the paper for example which address all Muslim students in the most general of terms, to be completely unacceptable:
“Children and families should be informed of the flexibility Islamic law offers to delay or exempt themselves from fasting and late-night prayers if they believe their performance in exams could be affected.”
“Inform pupils of the allowances Islam gives for them to break the fast and make it up later if they feel fasting will in any way jeopardise their performance.”
This last statement in particular is especially galling, incorrect and Islamically invalid. The obligation of seeking knowledge does not trump the obligation of fasting in Ramadhan. And then they claim “in any way jeopardise their performance”!? I can think of a hundred things from Islamic ritual practice that would in some way jeopardise an exam performance, so are they all up for debate too?!
Let me make the following brief points in response to this and the paper in general:
– There is no discussion to be had about students who are sick, or are having to travel for their exams, or girls who are menstruating. Islamic law concerning these issues is well known and fasting is not required from either of these groups, and the missed fasting days are to be made up later, even during cooler shorter days in the year if required.
– Our contention is with the claim that normal, healthy post-pubescent students who are obligated to fast the entire month of Ramadhan from dawn to sunset who feel their exams will be jeopardised are suddenly now able to “postpone fasting and make it up later”. This is completely and utterly false and should be ignored outright. Exams and the like are not legitimate reasons to break the fast. There is consensus on this point between all the schools of Islamic law.
– Fasting generally makes most people hungry, thirsty and tired. That is why it is such a great act of devotion to God and why it is so heavily rewarded by Him and thus so treasured by Muslims. This pillar from the key obligations of Islam clearly involves a certain level of difficulty and sacrifice and will make any normal activity during the month just that little bit more challenging. If it didn’t, where would there be a need for patience and sacrifice? Why would we be so happy when we break the fast and why would the Prophet (peace be upon him) describe that happiness as a divine blessing and a time where one should supplicate and that it would be granted due to the level of sacrifice? How would there be any associated reward if it didn’t make us work and strive harder and discover extra levels of intensity and energy that we never knew we had? So, let us also state that exams could indeed be potentially jeopardised as well as many other activities, but we should expect that and more so we should prepare for it better by taking other means as I shall mention below, and not by suggesting that one can leave their obligatory fast.
– However if a student who is fasting was found to become ill during the day or suffered from thirst to such an extent that they would be physically harmed, then it is not permissible for such a person to be fasting and they must drink and eat (and/or administer medication as appropriate) immediately to stave off the harm. If they recover from the illness or emergency, they must then refrain from food and drink for the remainder of the day until sunset, and then that day’s fast must be made up later. This is the position of the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i school and the main position of the Hanbali school.
– Exams are psychologically stressful and also have a physical toll on the body too with the extra preparation they require. However, they do not belong to those categories of acts or situations which usually allow a person to break their fast for, such as extreme thirst when working in a furnace and one is about to faint, or if one is in the army and is about to engage with the enemy in a very physical and demanding battle.
– It should be also noted than even in the extreme case where one is allowed to break their fast due to the difficulty of the moment such as war etc, then this permission can only be given on an individual basis by a scholar well-versed in the tradition and with knowledge of the situation at hand. Furthermore, it is completely impermissible for an individual to anticipate such a situation from the beginning of dawn and thus not fast, whilst knowing that they will not encounter that extreme situation until many hours later. One is obliged to be fasting from dawn and then break it at the last moment when one now has that legal excuse given to them from a scholar due to their extreme situation. This is the agreed position of all the schools of Islamic law, and is based on the apparent meaning of verse 185 of the second chapter of the Qur’an, as well as the practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him) when he travelled to Makkah during the month of Ramadhan as reported in the traditions of Ibn ‘Abbas and Jabir, may God be pleased with them all, as collected in Sahih Muslim and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad.
– Therefore even if one was to erroneously argue that exams are also a hardship which leads to an exception to fasting, and make an analogy to war or even to travelling, then the only resultant legal concession would be to break the fast during the actual act itself, and not before or after it. Patently, that would be of little value considering that one would really want a “concession” before the exam itself and during the preparation for it. It is clear that the ASCL hasn’t even been able to get this basic Islamic legality right in its mind despite the panel of Muslims it consulted.
– The United Kingdom enjoys a clearly defined day-time period, and a clearly defined night-time period even if in the Summer time the twilight persists and the night is brighter than usual. Because of that, all Muslims in the UK are obligated to fast until sunset however late that might get whether that fast lasts only 9 hours in the Winter time or even 19 hours in the Summer time. The ASCL paper mischievously tries to bring this issue up as well, which probably has more to do with some of the non-orthodox modernist contributors to the paper rather than the ASCL themselves.
– To illustrate the absurdity of this paper trying to suggest a Muslim doesn’t need to fast the next day or week because of exams whilst they revise and prepare during the critical moments, reflect on this: the biggest barrier during the Summer time to one’s normative work or exams even to use this current example, will be a lack of sleep. If you were to ask 1000 students at 11pm after they had just had a significant, healthy, energy-packed meal, “What would you prefer for optimum preparation for tomorrow’s exam? That you have to wake up again in a few hours for the Fajr dawn prayer, and then later you are allowed to have breakfast at 8am and a drink later on during the exam, or instead a full night’s sleep without waking up for any Fajr dawn prayer at 4am and thus wake up in time for the exam and sit the exam hungry with no drink but fully rested?” I think you would find many more choosing the rest and extra sleep over the food. So does that mean that the ASCL will now be releasing a paper telling all its students that they don’t need to offer the Fajr dawn prayer on any morning of the Summer that will effect studies and exams that day?
– There is also a fundamental difference in the way Muslims and non-Muslims will approach this issue. Certain difficult acts of worship bring their own benefits, especially in the spiritual realm. We all enjoy the fruits of empiricism in this country but Muslims recognise the limitations of empiricism too. We embrace the concept of “blessings”, something which will never be able to be explained empirically. We believe that through greater time with the Qur’an spent reflecting and acting upon it, that time itself will be extended and will become in the control of the beholder as opposed to the other way round. This is the very definition of blessing: that we take more out of the time, the item, the subject, the moment, the capacity, the level, the energy limit, than what normally seems possible! That is why so many people will not have any issue at all in their exams during Ramadhan, and indeed some will perform even better (!) and perhaps if we find that some students are having difficulties and they haven’t taken sensible rest precautions (as explained in my next point) then perhaps they need to actually revisit how they are fasting Ramadhan itself and their character and behaviour therein. It is not uncommon that those who fast still fail to exhibit the signs of extra blessings and actually lose out because of their poor spiritual presence and integrity during the fast; this is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) described such people as just earning hunger and thirst from their fast, and not much else. No wonder they’d have difficulties during their exams!
– What we perhaps can focus on to help our students is to clearly identify those extra acts of worship which are popular during Ramadhan and see what can be rearranged to ensure more time for revision, and more time for recuperation. So for example and using the experience of my own children and their studies:
(a) They should be focusing a lot on the Qur’an before the month of Ramadhan so that there is less pressure during the actual month itself to catch up on a year’s worth of reading and reflecting when they didn’t do enough, something which is unfortunately very common in Muslim households. In fact, I am comfortable for those households that regularly read the Qur’an with their children, to reduce it down significantly in Ramadhan to just ten minutes a day during final exams time etc. And indeed those who do regularly read the Qur’an outside of Ramadhan, will find it easy to fit the Qur’an in daily during the Holy Month with absolutely no effect on revision schedules.
(b) Likewise if more of the Qur’an is reviewed and studied outside of Ramadhan, it makes the Tarawih prayer in the mosque – the nightly congregational prayer during the nights of Ramadhan where a portion of the Qur’an is recited – less vital to attend. I am in absolutely no doubt whatsoever just how blessed and spiritually necessary it is to witness these gatherings and to reflect upon the Qur’an therein and the great rewards on offer for full attendance, but at the same time there is a consensus on the fact that this is not an obligatory act of worship and so if we are not going to exercise this legal concession at a time of need like now, then when are we going to exercise it?! Therefore, I think it is reasonable that young Muslims sitting their exams need not attend every Tarawih prayer of the week itself and perhaps avail of the opportunity on the weekends and the odd day here and there, using the extra time saved to rest properly (and not to cheat or blag their parents and spend the time playing games instead!)
(c) I like the idea that students go to sleep immediately on their return from school seeing as the next ‘Asr afternoon prayer is still a good few hours away. That allows one to gain extra rest and then wake up for ‘Asr and revise with a fresh mind, as well as making up for any sleep deprivation due to the late ‘Isha time and any possible Tarawih or Fajr prayers offered in congregation and then the early start the next morning. It is also important for parents to cut out any extra studies and activities during Ramadhan especially during Summer time such as regular Arabic lessons or other hobbies and game playing etc so as to maximise time for rest and study. Also, on an individual case-by-case basis, I deem it permissible for young students at home who need to get an early night due to not getting enough sleep, to combine the Maghrib and ‘Isha prayers at home by themselves due to the need and the ijtihad nature of the constant twilight during this time period anyway. I do not hold this to be acceptable in the Mosques for the entire congregation during the Summer, but for individuals at home with a specific need then that it is permissible from time to time.
In summary, whilst we appreciate the general advice from the ACSL for students studying for exams in the Summer whilst fasting, it is not permissible to plan to miss fasts because of these exams.
And Allah knows best.